Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry's new movie, is a thematic sequel to his best film, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. In Eternal Sunshine, a mysterious brain-editing machine can erase your memories of a shitty relationship, leaving you free to reinvent yourself. In Be Kind Rewind, Jack Black gets magnetized and then erases a whole store full of videotapes, allowing him and Mos Def to reinvent those stories. The only difference is, Be Kind is a slapstick comedy. And it's about 10,000 times more sentimental. Spoilers await!
Like Eternal Sunshine, Be Kind is slipstream: a melding of genres that uses elements from science fiction but doesn't adhere to all the genre's expectations. The sequence where Jack Black decides to sabotage a power plant and winds up magnetized is very scifi, from the tentacles of current bathing Black's floating body to the weird visual effects that follow him around for a while afterwards. Most of the rest of the movie is "realistic," except that it's totally unrealistic. The movie requires just as much suspension of disbelief as the scifi-iest scifi movie.
So you've probably seen the "Sweded" versions of classic movies, like the clips of Ghostbusters and Robocop above. You'll probably be disappointed if you expect the whole movie to be about the wacky fan films which Jack Black and Mos Def make (with the help of an ever-increasing supporting cast). That segment, between Jack Black erasing all the videotapes and the fan-film operation getting shut down, occupies the middle segment of the film. But there's a lot of stuff before and afterwards.
The rest of Be Kind deals with gentrification and the destruction of old urban neighborhoods. The titular Be Kind, Rewind video store is in a condemned building in a crappy neighborhood in Passaic, NJ, which Jack Black describes as a "dump swamp" at one point. The store's only claim to fame is that jazz legend Fats Waller was born in the building, and you won't be particularly shocked when you find out halfway through that it's not even true. The store's owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) made up the Fats Waller myth to disguise from Mos Def (and himself) that they're trapped in hell with no way out.
The city wants to tear down the video store (where Glover also lives) and put up ugly condos in a bid to "improve" the neighborhood. As the movie goes on, you meet more and more characters who seem to be barely hanging on economically. The act of "Sweding" the Hollywood movies which Black erased becomes the ultimate empowerment for people who are slowly getting erased from their own neighborhood. It would be super depressing, if the movie didn't keep hammering home the idea that creating (or recreating) your own narratives can save you from being crushed. (I'm a sucker for that idea, so I totally bought into it.)
And then, after about 45 minutes of Black and Def's escalating silliness in "covering" 2001: A Space Odyssey and other random movies, the lawyers show up to put a stop to it. (One of those lawyers is played by Sigourney Weaver, who's already spent a lot of time being impersonated by a random African American guy in the Sweded Ghostbusters.) After all that yay-reclaiming-our-stories stuff, Weaver's character points out that the video store doesn't even own its tapes: the movies still belong to the studios, and Be Kind Rewind is just leasing them out, to rent them out in turn to other people.
I sort of expected the movie to turn into the battle over whether Black and Def should be allowed to create their own fan-films for profit. (That's what the trailer left me expecting, anyway.) But the fight is over really quickly, and nobody even utters the phrase "Transformative work." Larry Lessig should not see this movie, it'll just upset him. Within a couple minutes after Weaver and the other stooge show up, a steamroller is destroying all of the awesome tapes Mos Def and Jack Black have made.
I won't spoil what happens after that, but suffice to say the movie has a long coda (probably another half an hour or so) in which it proves, once and for all, that creativity can bring everybody together, and that the stories we create ourselves are better than the ones other people provide for us. And better, for that matter, than the "truth." (It all ties back into that myth about Fats Waller being born in the crappy video store.) It's a super uplifting ending, even as you're left with no doubt that all these people are royally fucked.
That's the other reason I want to claim Be Kind as a type of science fiction: not only does it have a science fictional McGuffin, and "Swede" several scifi movies, but it's also all about the power of invention. Both in the sense of making shit up, and in the sense of cobbling together solutions out of technology. It's not quite as great, or as clever, as Eternal Sunshine. But it's a worthy successor anyway.